Monday, August 1, 2011

Folk Medicine: A New England Almanac of Natural Health Care from a Noted Vermont Country Doctor

Book review: Folk Medicine: A New England Almanac of Natural Health Care from a Noted Vermont Country Doctor by D.C. Jarvis M.D. (Fawcett Books 1958)

This is an awesome book and fun as well. Actually, I first read it when I was a teenager when I found it on my grandfather’s bookshelf. It appears to be just as exciting and relevant today as then. Dr. Jarvis studied the folk medicine practiced by many people in Vermont. More particularly, he studied and experimented with the uses of honey, apple cider vinegar, and kelp as medicines. He devised many of his own scientific experiments with these medicines on humans, cows and other livestock, and even utilizing wild animals. The country folk of Vermont apparently learned much about health through observation of their animals, particularly their dairy herds. The author studied and followed several cow herds and a few goat herds. Chickens, dogs, and minks were also observed. It should be noted also that this study of folk medicine was done over several years in conjunction with the medical community at the time.

“Folk medicine in Vermont is interested in three R’s – Resistance, Repair, and Recovery. First the individual asks himself whether his resistance to disease is as it should be. Next, is he able to repair tissue injury due to accident should it occur? Finally, if sickness should occur, is his body able to bring about recovery?”

Another quote predicting the future of doctoring has apparently not come to pass or possibly it has in the sense that many people are now more educated about preventative health care:

“I believe the doctor of the future will be a teacher as well as a physician. His real job will be to teach people how to be healthy. Doctors will be even busier than they are now because it is a lot harder to keep people well than it is just to get them over a sickness.”

The author notes that widespread climatic instability in Vermont can lead to health problems. The folk part of the medicine is based mainly on observations of nature. The tissues of the body are likened to soil in human form. Sometimes nature distills its essences for us – as in the form of substances concentrated with minerals in balance, enzymes and easily digestible energy.

“In Vermont folk medicine there is an extremely simple prescription for replenishing the mineral needs of the body. It is as follows: two teaspoonfuls of honey and two teaspoonfuls of apple cider vinegar, taken in a glass of water one or more times each day,
depending on how much mental ad physical work is done. The blend tastes like a glass of apple cider. The vinegar brings across from the apple its mineral content, the honey brings across the minerals in the nectar of flowers.

In the section on animal laws he notes that animals tend not to eat when sick, sleep in places and situations without airflow so that air is warmed when it enters the body, and when given an opportunity they will eat things they are lacking in their diet.

Here is a basic quote about honey:

“It prevents fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract and is quickly absorbed. Honey contains important elements for forming new blood. Having a mild laxative effect, it prevents constipation. Being also a body sedative, it helps to produce sound and refreshing sleep.”

There is a section about eating for one’s racial pattern – although it only focuses on those of European descent – likely most of the people in rural Vermont. The three types are Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean. Nordics, those from Northern Europe, are said to best thrive on fish, seaweed, rye, and honey. Alpine types are said to best eat cereals and game meats. Mediterranean types are best with seafood, dairy, cereals, and fruits – especially corn and grape. These are general guidelines and can be refined much further and not taken to be absolute. Subdivisions of the racial patterns are: anatomical pattern (phenotype), nervous pattern – the two divisions of the nervous system – sympathetic and parasympathetic are likened to two gears, the sympathetic being high gear and the parasympathetic being low gear. Those in high gear are more reactive to stress and fight or flight responses. Those of high gear are said to be especially susceptible to substances and foods that produce an alkaline urine reaction (such as wheat which he generally disdains). Alkaline reaction is combated with daily intake of organic acid. To these people and others he suggests that heat is a sedative – especially hot drinks. The next subdivision is whether one is above or below normal – I didn’t quite follow this classification something about differences between people who like hot vs. cold, are morning people vs. evening people, and perhaps clinical things like a lower baseline blood pressure or higher.

It should be noted that since this book was written in the 50’s there may be some sections that are outdated and others that may need to be revised or refined but from what I know of nutrition and health – most of it seems to still be valid and reasonable. I especially like all the conclusive experiments he shows in the book such as situations where everyone at a banquet gets sick with diarrhea or food poisoning except those who regularly take apple cider vinegar. Apparently, that is because apple cider vinegar kills bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. I have experienced this once with kombucha which contains similar organic acids as vinegar. I had eaten some old guacamole and got a stomach ache. I happened to be in a store that sold kombucha and bought a bottle. Very soon after drinking it the stomach problem was gone.

Things that are generally not recommended for good health are wheat, refined flour, refined sugar, citrus fruits (at least for Vermonters as cranberry, grape, and apple are preferred), excessive meat, and excessive protein. Things that generally are recommended are rye, corn, seafood and seaweed, kelp, honey, apples, cranberries, grapes, and other potassium-rich foods.

He did a bunch of studies with acidity and alkalinity – noting which foods cause an alkaline reaction and noted that sickness very often occurs in that environment. These studies were conducted by subjecting one’s urine (predominantly morning urine) to pH testing. It was noted that things like stress and sudden onset of cold weather cold induce an alkaline reaction in the urine – thus increasing susceptibility to illness. The blood, lungs, and kidneys all help regulate the body’s pH balance. pH tends to change throughout the day and in response to various stimuli. Maple syrup, though full of minerals is also known to produce an alkaline urine reaction. He notes that perhaps this is why in Vermont, maple sugar candies were traditionally served with sour pickles preserved in vinegar. In one of his experiments the author followed a few cattle herds and  observed what they ate and what they passed up. he had a devices which juiced the grasses and foliage and tested for acidity. It was found that the cows intuitively selected what would test acid and avoided alkaline-producing fodder. Some cows would prefer certain acid-producing leaves. One very old cow (20 yrs) had a distinct preference for elm leaves – which apparently Vermont farmers munched on occasionally as well. The old cow escaped into the feeding area of the barn one day and helped herself to a pint of apple cider vinegar suggesting that old bodies benefit by it as well. From scientific studies it is well known that harmful bacteria prefer to grow in an alkaline medium so keeping the body in an acidified state is probably important for keeping bacterial disease at bay.

He noted the instincts of children and studied them in terms of mineral deficiencies. Since children are in a state of perpetual growth and bodily change they can manifest rather immediate nutritional needs if they are lacking. He notes that children really like sour fruits, even cranberries and vinegar – especially in Vermont where there are deficiencies in the granitic soil of iodine and potassium, two of the most important minerals according to the author. Perhaps this is why the people there react so well to the remedies he suggests. Rural children and other Vermonters also eat a lot of raw vegetables and leaves, and apparently various tree leaves as well.

There is a long chapter about the uses of potassium – sourced in green leaves, plant and tree buds and barks (apparently why horses and maybe goats will eat wood from their stalls), grapes, cranberries, apples, honey, paprika, and seaweeds like kelp.

“Potassium is to the soft tissues what calcium is to the hard tissues of the body. There is little doubt that potassium slows up the hardening process that menace the whole blood vessel system.”

One indication that this is true is that the meat of cows given apple cider vinegar is said to remain very tender.

“...the taking in (of fluid) is referred to as hydration, the giving out as dehydration. Vermont folk medicine holds that bacteria needing moisture with which to maintain themselves get it by taking moisture from the body cells. But if there is enough potassium in each body cell it will draw moisture from the bacteria, instead of the bacteria taking moisture from the body cells. The constant between bacteria and body cells, therefore, determines whether the cell’s attraction for water is strong enough to take it from the bacteria, or whether the moisture-attracting ability of the bacteria is strong enough to withdraw moisture from the body cells.”

Potassium-rich foods and supplements are said to aid in this moisture balance.

“One reason for the versatility of apple cider vinegar as a remedy in Vermont folk medicine is that it associates minerals with potassium. These are phosphorous, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, iron, fluorine, silicon, and many trace minerals.”

He goes through successful results of daily intake of potassium-rich apple cider vinegar (which provides usable potassium in an acid medium) in assisting weight loss and treatment of chronic headache, chronic fatigue, dizziness, sore throat, arthritis, and high blood pressure. Regarding arthritis which is often the result of calcium deposits in the joints he notes that Vermont soil tends to be very rich in calcium due to underlying marble deposits. Here the water is hard and calcium deposits on tea kettles are quick and common. It is quite well known these days that cider vinegar is a great cleaning agent – for tea kettles, coffee pots, and the like. The vinegar dissolves the deposited calcium – or to say it in another way the calcium enters into solution with an acid medium. He also notes that potassium content is significantly higher in raw foods than in cooked foods. In terms of cells there is a battle for moisture use between potassium and sodium. Potassium attracts water into cells. Sodium keeps water content up in the spaces between and outside of cells. Increased salt intake will affect the ability of potassium to draw water into the cells.

Honey is also rich in potassium and many other minerals (though in small amount). It has a tendency to take away moisture from bacteria – due to the potassium – and so bacteria fare poorly in the presence of honey. He goes through several uses of honey to assist in relieving symptoms and keeping one healthy. He notes honey as an easily assimilated energy-giving sweet that the kidneys handle better than other sugars. He also notes honey’s affect as a mild laxative and as a sedative. I have noticed that taking some honey an hour or so before bed has helped me get to sleep faster. There is also a section about chewing honeycomb for problems of the breathing tract, stuffy nose, and sinusitis.

Kelp (and other seaweeds) is a great source of potassium and iodine and many other minerals. Both honey and kelp, according to the author – may contain minerals in very good proportions to one another to best be used by the body. Iodine may be helpful in endurance, stress relief, weight loss, and clear thinking. He suggests that chlorine in drinking water (and possibly fluoride in toothpaste and drinking water – I add) may replace iodine in the body as they both chemically replace iodine due to favorable atomic weights. Other foods rich in iodine are radishes, carrots, asparagus, tomatoes, spinach, rhubarb, lettuce, strawberries, potatoes, peas, mushrooms, bananas, cabbage, egg yolk, and onions.

There is a section on castor oil and corn oil for external skin conditions – and he recommends corn oil internally as helping to keep the urine acidic. External uses of apple cider vinegar are adding it to bath water and washing with it in solution with water. Honey is well known to help cuts. In ancient times even dead bodies were preserved for later burial by coating in honey.

He notes some instances of too much protein among animals causing serious problems – even death. That suggests that the current human crazes of low-carb and high protein diets may not be as beneficial as they appear. Perhaps it is better to replace low quality carbs with better quality ones such as whole grains. The author suggest that a bit of honey after a meal will keep one satisfied so as not to overeat and the same is true of taking apple cider vinegar at meals.

I am eager to try some slight supplementation of apple cider vinegar with my animals – chickens, ducks, and goats, and even the dogs – perhaps adding a little to the water as the results seem quite good and they are said to like it quite well.

This book is a classic of folk medicine and straightforward science. It is a reminder that plants and animals can teach us much. Even though a few things may need to be updated – I think this book is still a classic and that daily use of honey, apple cider vinegar, and kelp can serve us and our kept animal friends well.

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